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MI4 fic: Playing with Fire (1/1)

August 8th, 2013 (06:18 am)
anxious
Tags: , ,

feeling: anxious

Title: Playing with Fire

Disclaimer: I do not own Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol or any of the characters.

A/N: Written for lena7142, who also did a generous beta. And also because Jeremy Renner is sort of amazing. This is also a fill for my hc_bingo card. (Prompt: fire!)

Summary: Ethan’s wife never died, and none of it was Brandt’s fault, and he gave up years of his career and he’s back in the game and in all honesty, he’s not sure what that means. He just knows that if he doesn’t get out of here soon, he’s going to get more than burned. He’s going to get burned alive.



-o-

It’s a lesson Brandt’s already learned the hard way. Being in the field, being an active spy -- it’s basically playing with fire. It’s a hell of a rush, and it takes skill and precision -- and a whole lot of luck. If you do it right, you’re a bonafide hero. One wrong move, and the whole damn thing goes up in flames.

It’s the lesson Brandt learned the day he let Ethan Hunt’s wife get murdered.

At least, the lesson he’d thought he’d learned.

Ethan’s wife never died, and none of it was Brandt’s fault, and he gave up years of his career and he’s back in the game and in all honesty, he’s not sure what that means.

He just knows that if he doesn’t get out of here soon, he’s going to get more than burned.

He’s going to get burned alive.

-o-

It starts like a regular mission.

At least, Brandt can only assume it starts like a regular mission. He’s still the new guy on the team, even though he has way more experience than Benji and is just as deadly as Jane. But he’s been out of the game for a while now, and the fact is that the three of them work together like a well oiled machine and sometimes he feels like a cog that accidentally got thrown into the works.

As it is, he doesn’t realize how rusty he is until their first official mission comes in, and he’s left standing awkwardly during the briefing, not sure when it’s his turn to say something. Ultimately, he ends up standing there, looking ever so serious with his mouth clamped shut. When Ethan finally looks at him, nodding gravely, the older man asks, “You think you got that?”

Brandt lifts his eyebrows. “Yeah,” he says quickly -- a little too quickly, he reprimands himself silently. Then he shrugs. “We’re going to hack into an oil tycoon’s private server to find evidence of criminal activity. Doesn’t sound so complicated.”

Benji scoffs. “It’s not just any server, though,” he says. He shakes his head, pointing at the screen. “This is the latest technology. A remote hack would almost be impossible. Unless we can get in there and compromise it manually, we’ll never have a chance of making it past all the failsafes.”

“That’s why we’re not going to do it remotely,” Ethan says, without missing a beat. He hits a button and a new image appears on the screen. “We’ll be accessing Nadal’s computer on site at his compound in Saudi Arabia.”

This time it’s Jane’s turn to scoff. “He’s notoriously careful,” she says. “This isn’t your typical smash and grab job. He’s got layers of security and an entire squadron of men patrolling the grounds. Unless we have an invitation, we’ll never get through the front door.”

Brandt eyes the screen. It does look impenetrable, and he’s heard of Nadal. While being out of the field, Brandt had taken to studying intel with a flourish. There’s not a wanted criminal that he doesn’t know about, and Nadal’s been on his radar for a while, ever since some of his money was traced to a bombing in Afghanistan a few years back.

Benji’s right, and so is Jane.

But Ethan’s holding out.

“Brandt, you have something to say?” Ethan finally asks.

A little surprised, Brandt is taken aback. “I--” he starts, and then stops. Then he reminds himself that hesitation is not part of what he does now. If he’s going to make this work, he needs to keep his head forward at all times. “So we’ll get an invitation.”

Ethan smiles slightly and brings up another image. “Every year, Nadal hosts a party. It only happens once--”

“But once is all we need,” Brandt says, feeling his anticipation rise a notch. “How are we going to snag invites?”

“We turned one of the people on Nadal’s staff, and we’ve managed to get ourselves access to two invitations,” Ethan explains.

Jane tilts her head. “I guess this means I get to buy a new dress again,” she says, sounding vaguely smug.

“And even if we can’t hack the private server, we can probably piggyback on their security system to at least gain some access to surveillance,” Benji says. “But I’ll need to maintain that offsite.”

Which just leaves Ethan and Brandt -- and one spot on the guest list.

There’s an awkward silence that hinges uncertainly. With a trio, there would be no such question. Ethan and Jane would go in with Benji running remote ops. But they’re not a three-man team anymore. There are four of them, and Brandt’s not sure where he stands on the pecking order. Because there is a pecking order, and Brandt’s the new guy who almost let Ethan’s wife get killed and Ethan’s the guy who let Brandt throw away his career over a mistake that wasn’t his fault -- and suddenly Brandt’s wondering if he really belongs here at all.

Ethan is watching him, and Brandt diverts all his focus into not turning red. Instead, he keeps his face even and meets Ethan’s eyes. “Toss you for it,” he says with a smirk.

Ethan regards him coolly. “You’ll go in with Jane,” he says. “I want Jane maintaining cover. Brandt, you’ll be responsible for slipping past security and planting the device that will let us transmit the information off the server.”

Jane and Benji are silent, and Brandt finally takes a breath. “You sure?” he asks.

Ethan shrugs. “Should work, if Benji can help us slip past some of the internal security protocols,” he says. “We may need Jane to get a little creative to get us some keys to the internal server room, but it’s nothing we haven’t done before.”

“No, I mean,” Brandt starts, but he’s not sure how to finish. He’s not sure if Ethan is really trusting him or if this is some kind of test. He’s not sure if he’s relieved or terrified by the thought of going undercover so soon on something so big. There are real consequences to this.

Before, Brandt didn’t have a choice, and now that he’s done saving the world, he’s left with the uncertain truth that he doesn’t know what he’s actually trying to do here at all.

Except this: he’s thrown away his career once. Whether Ethan Hunt trusts him or not, Brandt has one more shot at proving himself as a spy. And if he doesn’t take it, he’s going to spend the rest of his life regretting it.

Nodding, he takes a breath. “I mean,” he continues with more certainty now, “you sure you’re going to have enough to do sitting in the van with Benji?”

Ethan’s expression is hard to read, even with the smile tugging at his lips. “I think I’ll manage,” he says. Then he looks to the rest of the team. “Read up and be ready to go. Our flight leaves tomorrow.”

That’s that, it seems, but as Brandt walks out, he’s pretty sure it’s not going to be that simple.

-o-

It’s not that simple, but it happens that fast. Fortunately, Brandt’s good at cramming, and he consumes the mission file before they lift off. Still, while Jane and Benji settle in with familiar jokes and stories, Brandt finds himself flipping open his file for the lack of something better to do.

After a while, Ethan settles next to him. “You think you’re ready to go?”

It’s not a casual question, and Brandt finds himself bristling slightly. He wants to trust Ethan. He does trust Ethan. He’s just not sure how much Ethan trusts him.

Hell, he’s not sure how much he trusts himself.

Still, he smiles. “You bet.”

-o-

Brandt remembers this.

His time in the field was years ago, but it’s coming back to him more clearly now. This isn’t just adrenaline-fueled desperation. This is planned and concise.

This is routine.

They take a week to prep. There’s some set up to be done, and Benji provides them with a list of technical jobs that need to be completed. Ethan has a planned surveillance operation running simultaneously, and Brandt takes it upon himself to start creating a comprehensive profile of the compound, editing the file as he goes or adding new sections entirely.

This is, after all, his forte.

At least, it was.

But as the night approaches, Brandt remembers why he loved this job so much when he started. As an analyst, he’d found solace in the mundane details. In the field, the pressure of life or death is as inspiring as it is terrifying. He’d spent years double checking himself, trying not to make another deadly mistake. But there was no mistake, except not looking hard enough for the truth.

The exhilaration is a little intoxicating.

It’s also unsettling.

Because he didn’t make a mistake, but he’s not quite the same operative he was. He hasn’t decided if that’s a good or bad thing.

But as he dresses for the mission, fitted in his tux and adjusted his tie, he thinks it’s time to find out.

-o-

In the last few years, Brandt has gotten good at meetings. In fact, he’s usually the analyst pushing for meetings. He’s tended to believe that if they have enough intel, if they spend enough time talking, then things will end up better.

But now that it’s him going back into the field, it’s a little tedious to be called back together for a final roll call. At this point, Brandt’s either good to go or he’s not.

But this isn’t Brandt’s call. It’s Ethan’s. So Brandt has no choice but to fall in line.

Benji is decked out in his tech gear, the headset already firmly in place. Ethan is clad in simple black, but when Jane makes her entrance, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.

Brandt is trying not to stare, but Benji gapes sort of stupidly. Ethan smirks. “Glad to see you disregarded the budget constraints again,” he says.

Jane shrugs, fastening a diamond-draped necklace. “You think Nadal won’t know the difference between a knockoff and the real thing?” she asks, smoothing her hair before flashing a smile. “I just want the mission to be successful.”

“Besides,” Benji says, nodding earnestly, “I think the stilettos could be reclassified as a weapon expense.”

Brandt resists the urge to roll his eyes. “So are we a go?”

Ethan’s eyes settle on him. “I won’t bother rehashing the details,” he says. “But I do want to remind you that this operation requires every one of us to work properly. If at any point something feels up, speak up immediately. I’d rather pull the plug and get us out to regroup for a second chance than burning the mission entirely.”

Ethan turns his gaze to each team member before settling back on Brandt. “We all have a part to play, and I need to know every one of you is on board with that.”

His gaze is piercing now, and Brandt shifts uneasily. It’s not hard to see that Ethan is singling him out, though it’s not entirely clear why. Maybe this is a warning. Maybe hiring Brandt at all was a pity play. Maybe it was an effort to wipe the slate clean. Either way, Ethan Hunt cost him his career once, and it occurs to Brandt that he could take it from him again, no questions asked.

Jane smiles, breaking the silence first. “You know we are.”

“At this point, what else am I going to say?” Benji asks.

Gaze never wavering, Ethan says, “What about you Brandt?”

What about Brandt? He doesn’t want to be just an analyst anymore, but he’s not sure he really has a place on this team at all. He has what it takes to be in the field, but maybe not here. But there’s very rarely second chances in the spy game.

He nods, resolute. “This is our opportunity,” he says. “Let’s not blow it.”

Jane nods in return, and Benji grins. Ethan’s expression goes impassive. “Okay, then,” he says. “Let’s do this.”

-o-

It goes pretty much perfectly.

During his first run with this team -- before he was even really part of the team -- everything had been so forced and flung together that he hadn’t even had time to appreciate the fact that he was in the field. The stakes had been too high -- for the country, for the world, for their very survival -- and apparently Brandt had fairly well honed self-preservation skills.

This time is different. This time, he has complete volition. This time, they’re equal and defined players with professional and detached interests.

And it goes pretty much perfectly.

He and Jane are still relative strangers, but they play the happy couple effortlessly. He holds her hand, and she nuzzles his neck. They make their rounds -- identifying the target and the exits and the security cameras -- while they wait for Benji to give them the green light.

They mix and mingle. He brings Jane a glass of champagne, and she quirks her lips provocatively. “Drinking already?”

Brandt tips his own glass back, taking a sip. “Got to play the part.”

She takes a sip of her own, even as Benji’s voices comes over their earwigs. “I have a go on the security,” he says. “Time to make your move.”

Jane swallows. “Time to get this party started then.”

Brandt takes a breath. “See you on the outside.”

The earwig comes to life, this time with Ethan’s voice. “Be careful,” he warns. “Remember if something goes wrong--”

Brandt grunts, starting to feel genuinely annoyed. “Nothing can go wrong,” he says.

“You better hope,” Ethan cautions.

“I better know,” Brandt mutters before downing the rest of his drink and heading across the room.

-o-

Funny, but being a spy is apparently like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget. No matter how much time he spent as an analyst, it all comes back and Brandt moves seamlessly through the halls. He has the stolen passkey and the lifted security codes. He follows Benji’s trail of compromised security cameras without missing a beat, and listens to updates from Jane as she wines and dines Nadal.

They’re that good. Jane hits her mark; Benji has full control of security.

Now it’s just up to Brandt.

Sneaking in farther, he navigates perfectly, taking Ethan’s scant directions without comment. At the server room, circumventing the last lock is almost comically easy. Inside, he waits for a baited second. When no alarms sound, he smiles. “I’m in.”

-o-

In all, the mission is flawless. The setup, the execution -- everything is without a hitch. Closing the door behind him, Brandt sets about his work without hesitation, unpacking his sparse supplies from inside his suit coat. It takes him a minute to sort through the banks of equipment until he finds the one Benji flagged for him during their briefing.

Quickly, Brandt takes out the external device and mentally reminds himself how it works. He has to attach it via one of the ports and then let the encryption data download before they have access to the information. It will give Benji remote access to everything on the server -- everything they could need to build a case against Nadal.

He stops just short, pressing on his earwig. “You sure this is going to work?” he asks.

“As long as you haven’t buggered it up and picked the wrong machine,” Benji says.

Brandt frowns, and the years of self-doubt are hard to shake. He’s only seen pictures, and none of them were actual photos of the room. And all the panels did look similar, and this one fits the profile, but there is room for doubt.

But what is doubt to him now? He was doubting himself over something that was never his fault. He let it take so much from him -- too much from him -- and that has to stop.

Now.

If he wants to be a spy, this is his chance.

His only chance.

“Do it,” Ethan orders.

Jaw tight, Brandt plugs it in.

And that’s when it all goes wrong.

-o-

The instant the transfer starts, there’s a crackle and a pop. The lights flicker and the smell of ozone permeates everything. Frowning, Brandt knows something is wrong and reaches forward to pull out the plug.

When he does, however, sparks start to fly and the machine sizzles before suddenly starting to smolder.

Brandt swears, shrugging out of his jacket and trying to squelch the impending fire, but there’s nothing he can do. The flames are sparking from inside the console and unless he takes the entire thing apart, there’s no way to reach the source.

“Brandt?” Ethan’s voice comes. “Talk to me.”

Brandt winces, backing up and looking around the room for some kind of solution. “I’m not sure we have the right electrical compatibility,” he says. “The damn thing sparked.”

“Sparked?” Benji’s voice comes. “Are you sure?”

Brandt looks back at the smoking console, which is still smoldering. “Pretty sure,” he says. “The smoke and flames are a pretty good indication.”

“Is there a sprinkler system?” Ethan asks.

“Sure, but we disabled it when we hacked the security,” Benji says.

Brandt squints up at the sprinkler head. “If we deploy it, we’ll never get the data.”

“We may not get it now,” Ethan reminds him.

Scowling, Brandt looks around, hoping for some kind of answer, some kind of inspiration.

Then he sees it. “It was the wrong panel,” he announces, too aware of what that says about his judgment as he hurries over to the other panel, which is almost a mirror of the other. It’s not in the location Benji had predicted, but the similarity in appearance is too much to dismiss. “Our compatibility might have been fine.”

“Yeah, or the same thing could happen,” Ethan says.

“You said it yourself,” Brandt reminds him. “We only have this shot.”

“And we only have one team,” Ethan snaps. “Don’t cost us any more on this mission.”

“Benji, do you think it’s worth it?” Brandt asks, purposefully ignoring Ethan.

“It’s hard to say,” Benji says, clearly distracted. “I mean, without direct access to the room--”

“Do you think it’s possible?” Brandt amends.

“Sure, technically,” Benji says. “But--”

But nothing.

If Brandt’s going to get burned, he may as well make it worth his while. Ignoring any continued protests, he plugs in his dock again and braces himself for the worst.

-o-

This time, it works. There’s a tense moment, and then a green light shows on the external device. Brandt presses the button. “You getting this?”

There’s a moment of silence on the other end. Then Benji laughs, almost in disbelief. “You’ve got it!”

“Uh, guys?” Jane’s voice cuts in. “I think we have a problem...”

“Yeah, make that two problems,” Ethan says. “Is it still smoking in there, Brandt?”

Brandt blinks, noticing for the first time how much smoke is burning his eyes. He doesn’t have time to answer when Jane says, “They know they’ve been breached. No one’s done anything yet, but Nadal’s security team is looking pretty nervous.”

“It’s only a matter of time before the smoke gets noticed,” Ethan says.

“Or worse,” Jane says. “Before someone pulls a--”

She never gets to finish because Brandt can hear the sound of chaos breaking out over the line, crackling and spiking as the telltale sound of a fire alarm starts to blare.

That would be disconcerting, but that’s the moment the back panel pops and explodes in earnest, and Brandt turns around to see a pillar of red-orange flame lick upward from the now-decimated panel, engulfing the unit and starting to catch on the one next to it.

“Fire,” he concludes, because that’s really all there is to say. “Fire.

-o-

As a spy, Brandt knows what it means to think under pressure. He knows that lives are on the line in what he does, most of the time, his own.

He also knows that the only thing that separates him from criminals and terrorists is the fact that he’s doing it for the right reasons. The fact that he’ll sacrifice himself to the cause, that he’ll take a hit as long as the greater good is being served.

He knows that it’s his job to play with fire.

More than that, it’s his job to stay in the fire until the job is done.

“How bad’s the fire?” Ethan’s voice interrupts his thoughts.

Brandt turns away, wishing he hadn’t discarded his jacket already. He pushes air through his nose and blinks away the grime in his eyes. “Well, let’s just say extraction will be hot.”

Ethan curses.

Benji moans. “Oh, man,” he says. “I’m losing direct security control.”

Ethan curses again. “Jane, can you get to Brandt’s position?”

Jane grunts. “Damn it,” she says. “They’re making us all evacuate, I may be able to sneak back in but it’ll take some time--”

Another panel sizzles and combusts, and Brandt flinches, groping blindly for the door and almost burning his hand as he pushes it open. The smoke starts to billow out, and it’s not a lot, but it’s something. “How’s the upload?” he croaks, ducking low and moving back toward the panel.

“The upload?” Benji asks, like he’s forgotten.

“We can’t afford to worry about the upload,” Ethan interjects curtly. “I’m ordering everyone to pull out.”

“We can’t afford to lose this intel,” Brandt objects, even as he coughs in futility. The heat is mounting and the smoke is almost blinding him. “The upload.

“Brandt, get the hell out of there,” Ethan says.

“No,” Brandt insists, because Ethan’s a liar and Ethan’s his boss, and Brandt trusts him and he doesn’t, and if he can’t do his job then he can’t do anything. He needs to get this done, for the greater good, for his time.

For himself.

“Brandt, this is an order,” Ethan says, the tension rising in his voice.

Brandt’s chest is tight and he grips the external device even when he can’t see the little green light. He hacks for a moment, and closes his eyes, shaking his head. “And this is me, ignoring it,” he says, voice like gravel in the dusk. “We need to finish--”

He dissolves into coughs, curling in on himself as the flames spread further. He’s sweating now, and the smoke is too thick to see through. Over the roar of the flames, he can still hear his team. Talking, discussing--

“I can try to double back,” Jane says.

“Damn it, how long?” Ethan growls.

“Security’s too tight,” Jane mutters.

“Brandt!”

Brandt wants to answer, tries to answer, but the smoke is too thick, the flames are too close and Brandt can’t see, he can’t breathe, he can’t think--

“Got it!” Benji cries over all the rest. “We have the upload!”

“Brandt,” Ethan growls. “Time to move.”

They’ve got it.

They’ve got it.

Groping numbly for the external device, Brandt rips the plug out of the port -- and runs.

-o-

The smoke is so bad now that Brandt basically has no idea where he’s going. All of his visual markers have been obliterated by the thickening haze, and he goes on pure instinct while he crawls for the door on all fours. He rams his head against the wall a few times before the surface finally gives and Brandt pushes himself vigorously into the awaiting hallway.

He expects relief.

He’s not thrilled to find that the smoke isn’t much better here. Flopping on his back, he looks up and can’t see the ceiling through the gray. His chest is killing him -- every breath is agony and is less useful than the last -- and he coughs wretchedly while he tries to muster his strength.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for that.

He hears voices. At first, they’re hard to place over the crackling, but the sound of footsteps approaching cuts through his dulled senses. Stumbling, he gets to his feet, ducking his head low and bringing his arm over his mouth as he takes a staggering step forward. He makes it several paces down the hall when he hears a yell.

Glancing back, he sees several armed men, one of whom is waving a gun at him in a rather menacing fashion.

This is bad, Brandt knows, but he’s sort of too busy trying to hack up his lung to actually do anything about it. He’s a skilled fighter, but with the smoke inhalation, he’s not sure he could put up much of a fight and the only thing he’s armed with is the external device.

After everything, Brandt’s not going to go out in a blaze of glory. He’s going to be done in by suffocating smoke -- and a bullet to the chest.

But before the man can pull the trigger, something pops anew from within the room. The guards yelp, and Brandt’s eyes widen as he realizes what’s about to happen. He throws himself down and as far up the hall as he can while the guard levels his aim--

Right as the room explodes.

The blast hurls smoke and fire into the hall, consuming the guards where they stand. The concussive force drives Brandt forward, and he’s fumbling through the haze until he hits hard against the floor, rolling across the ground until his head connects with the wall and everything goes black.

-o-

It’s a lesson Brandt’s already learned the hard way. Being in the field, being an active spy -- it’s basically playing with fire. It’s a hell of a rush, and it takes skill and precision -- and a whole lot of luck. If you do it right, you’re a bonafide hero. One wrong move, and the whole damn thing goes up in flames.

It’s the lesson Brandt learned the day he let Ethan Hunt’s wife get murdered.

At least, the lesson he’d thought he’d learned.

Ethan’s wife never died, and none of it was Brandt’s fault, and he gave up years of his career and he’s back in the game and in all honesty, he’s not sure what that means.

He just knows that if he doesn’t get out of here soon, he’s going to get more than burned.

He’s going to get burned alive.

-o-

In the dark, Brandt can still see Ethan’s wife. They’re perfect together, in a way that Brandt doesn’t understand but somehow feels compelled to protect. There are some things worth fighting for. Freedom and country, trust and love.

He didn’t see her die, but he looked at the body. He hasn’t told anyone about that, but he still remembers it. Sees it. Smells it.

The charred corpse had to be identified from dental records. He spent countless nights after that, wondering what it was like to be burned alive, what it was like to have every inch of your body consumed by flame until there was nothing but trace samples of DNA and singed bone.

Except she didn’t die, and in his mind, she’s smiling when the flames rise. She’s smiling still when Ethan walks through the fire and takes her hand and they walk away together, safe amid the flames.

Somehow, they’re fine.

And Brandt’s the one burning.

-o-

Startled, Brandt awakens. He sucks in a ragged breath, which catches painfully in his chest and he hacks it back up. Smoke.

And where there’s smoke...

It all comes back to him. Not just about Ethan and his wife and the lie that changed Brandt’s career. But the mission.

He blinks rapidly against the smoke. The mission.

Jolting upward, his head spins and his fingers tighten reflexively around the external drive. His earwig is full of static -- maybe there’s too much interference from the smoke and fire. Maybe Brandt’s eardrums have been ruptured from the force of the explosion.

He tilts his head, looking down what used to be the hallway. It’s a crumbling mess now, and the flames have spread.

Which means that authorities will be coming. Meaning that his exit is compromised. Meaning that he’s going to die here if he doesn’t do something. They’ll find his body, charred and unidentifiable, only it won’t be a thorough trick.

It’ll be real.

The reality is pressing and terrifying, but Brandt doesn’t want that. He can’t have that. He couldn’t have come this far just to lose it all.

He can’t.

Desperate, he gets to his feet, lifting his arm and breathing into the crook of his elbow. It doesn’t do him much good but he takes a staggering step, bracing himself against the wall before moving forward again.

The flames are licking at the ceiling, and ash falls on his head. The smoke is impossible to see through, but he feels it, sticking to the inside of his airway. His head spins and his equilibrium falters.

He’s not going to make it.

His can’t feel his fingers; his legs are like rubber.

At one point, he might have called this penance for his failures. But his failures aren’t real.

So what the hell is he dying for? For a team he doesn’t know? For a job he’s just remembering how to do? For the greater good?

Or just because Brandt’s rusty and he’s stupid and he’s made mistakes.

He trips ahead.

He’s made so many mistakes.

He gave up once.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem so hard to do it again.

When his knees give out, he doesn’t fight it. He collapses to the ground and doesn’t try to move. Doesn’t try anything as the smoke covers him once and for all.

-o-

The funny thing is, it’s okay.

Brandt’s okay with this. He’s been okay with the idea of this since the beginning, he supposes, but ever since someone died on his watch, he’s always seen death as a noble outcome. He’s been haunted, he thinks, except the ghosts have always been in his mind.

That doesn’t make them less real.

That doesn’t make this death any more telling.

Maybe he’s just not built for the field. Maybe that’s just not what he’s supposed to do. Maybe Ethan’s wife was a sign from the universe, pointing him away from the field. Maybe he tempted fate by going back.

Maybe this is what he deserves.

Maybe this is how it was always going to be.

And that’s okay.

Brandt’s ready for the end.

The end, however, doesn’t seem like it’s ready for Brandt. Like most things in his life, he doesn’t have a lot of say, so when someone grabs him by the arm and hits his cheek, he may not be able to reply, but he also can’t resist.

He can’t fight as he’s hoisted up; he can’t protest as he’s carried out.

He can’t do anything but let it happen.

Some ghosts resurrect themselves; some are all in the mind.

Some will never leave.

It occurs to Brandt that he’s never known how things are supposed to go.

Maybe this time he’ll find out.

-o-

When he comes to, it’s different. He’s on his back, and he can feel bright lights behind his eyes. He tries to open them, but when he takes a breath in, his lungs seize and he chokes instead.

Someone swears, and there’s pressure on his face as warm air blasts against his mouth. He tries to breathe in again, but it doesn’t do any good. There’s another curse and an alarm starts to wail.

“His O2 levels are bad,” Jane announces.

“Oh, God,” Benji says. “He’s turning blue.”

“We need to get him out of here,” Jane insists.

“But if we hit any local hospital, we’ll be tagged for sure,” Benji says.

Brandt feels compelled to add something to the conversation, but he’s too busy trying -- and failing -- to breathe, to even open his eyes. Instead, he gasps like a fish out of water, straining desperately even as the machine beeps a wild cadence.

“I know,” Ethan snaps. “I’m going to need five minutes, but I want you to have him ready to move when I say so.”

“Move?” Jane asks. “Ethan, Brandt’s--”

“Bloody hell,” Benji mutters as Brandt gasps and fails again.

“Five minutes,” Ethan insists.

There’s a hesitation as Brandt’s heart struggles against the tightness in his chest.

“Don’t let me down,” Ethan’s voice drifts in his ear. “Not this time.”

Brandt can’t agree or disagree, as his focus tunnels and the struggle to breathe is all that matters.

-o-

Brandt floats. He’s not dead but he thinks he may be dying. He can feel his lungs closing off, and he feels the sluggish beats of his heart even as the rest of his body goes horrible and irrevocably numb. Jane squeezes his arm. Benji frets.

Brandt feels stupid like this, but there’s nothing he can do about it. There’s nothing he can do at all. Except hold on. Wait. Hope.

His choices have consequences. Sometimes innocent people die.

Sometimes not-so-innocent agents die.

Sometimes people just die. That’s the thing with fire. It refines things to their core. But if there’s nothing inside, then all that’s left is ash.

“You must have some kind of authorization,” someone comments above him.

“You saw the orders,” is Ethan’s curt reply.

“Sure, but--”

“But nothing,” Ethan interrupts. “He’s suffering from severe smoke inhalation. He’s not getting enough oxygen. You are the best army doctor in the region, aren’t you?”

“Well, I guess--”

“Then fix him,” Ethan orders. “Because his death is not acceptable.”

Ethan says it like maybe his orders can change the outcome. Hell, as far as Brandt knows, maybe they can.

He’ll find out, either way.

This time, when the darkness comes, there’s a blossoming pressure in his throat and his chest fills. Unconsciousness is thick and heavy this time, and Brandt doesn’t float, he disappears, as if there’s nothing left of him.

Though, he reflects as it consumes him, he’s not sure there ever was.

-o-

Then, he’s awake.

It’s vaguely startling, yet there’s an inevitability about it that makes him feel like he should have expected it. He’s spent the last few years assuming the worst, but the reality has always been far more resilient than he’s given it credit for.

There’s a certain innate relief at being alive -- he still remembers the fire and the smoke -- but it’s quickly replaced with the pressing question of how--

“Hey.”

Brandt startles again, looking to the side where Ethan Hunt is perched on a chair. His arms are crossed over his plain black t-shirt and he’s watching Brandt with undue scrutiny.

Ethan’s presence is not exactly what he expected, though there’s a certain inevitability to that as well. Composing himself, Brandt takes a breath--

And starts hacking wildly. It rips through his chest, tearing through his throat with a ferocity that makes his eyes water. He tries to curl in against it, but it doesn’t help, and he convulses against the thick phlegm that seems to be coating his throat and clogging in his nose. It feels like there’s an elephant on his chest, and no matter how much Brandt tries, nothing can change that.

“Here,” Ethan says, his voice closer now even if Brandt’s eyes are screwed shut too tight to see him. There’s a pressure against his face, and the order is simple, “Breathe.”

Brandt wants to tell Ethan to shut the hell up because that’s what he’s been trying to do, but Brandt’s instincts betray him and he inhales.

The pure oxygen is almost intoxicating, and it slips past the mucous in his throat and filters in his lungs. He feels it clear his head. The next breath still hurts, but it comes easier. For several moments, Brandt focuses all his energy on breathing, and when he’s finally coherent and calm, he opens his eyes wearily and feels beyond ridiculous. “Hey,” he croaks in a long overdue return.

Ethan smirks, still pressing the oxygen mask to Brandt’s face. For a moment, Brandt’s almost grateful that his exertion in coughing has made his face red to hide any possible blushing. After all, Ethan is tending to his bedside like a nursemaid. He’s been sitting there watching Brandt sleep. It’s nothing short of humiliating.

Trying to salvage his dignity, Brandt reaches up feebly, dragging the IV tubes on his hand and uses his fingers to take over the mask duty. “Thanks,” he says, because he’s not really sure what other response is appropriate.

Ethan relinquishes the mask and sits back. “For what?”

Of course Ethan’s not going to make it easy. Brandt shrugs one shoulder minutely. “Everything?” he tries.

“What do you remember?” Ethan asks.

“The mission,” he says gruffly. “The intel?”

“Benji’s got it, and the analysts back home are having a field day,” Ethan confirms.

That much is a relief.

“What else?” Ethan presses.

Brandt takes a few more ragged breaths, then winces. “Fire.”

Ethan nods. “And?”

He’s waiting for Brandt to figure something out, but Brandt isn’t sure what that is. It hardly seems fair. Brandt was the one who had nearly died. He’d passed out from smoke inhalation and...

His heart sinks as realization dawns. “You saved me?” he asks with a certain dread.

This isn’t surprising, although the logistics don’t quite make sense. “But you were -- in the van--”

Ethan shakes his head. “When you refused to pull the plug, I started in after you.”

This part doesn’t compute. It may be the drugs or the lingering effects of what must be moderately severe smoke inhalation, but Brandt’s feeling at a loss. “But...”

“I always had an emergency exit mapped out,” Ethan explains. “I found a weak point in the security system, and really, with the fire, getting in was pretty easy.”

Brandt’s forehead furrows. “You had an emergency exit?”

Ethan is unbothered by the question. He’s also unapologetic. “Always.”

“But why didn’t you tell me?” Brandt asks. “It wasn’t in the briefing.”

“I was hoping I wouldn’t need it,” Ethan says.

“But I deserved to know,” Brandt argues.

Ethan raises his eyebrows. “Would that have changed things?”

“Maybe,” Brandt says.

“I tell people what they need to know, when they need to know it,” Ethan says.

“Why do you get to decide?” Brandt asks, and he’s almost panting now, the effort to speak almost crushing him, but this is important. This is everything. “Why you?”

“I’m in charge,” Ethan says simply.

“So that means we have to trust you?” Brandt demands, voice grating as he struggles to keep his breath. “Especially when you lie to us?”

“I told you,” Ethan repeats. “I tell people what they need to know, when they need to know it.”

Brandt can’t help it. He scoffs. “Really? Because I could have done with the truth years ago.”

It’s an accusation, but Ethan remains unfazed. “I had priorities.”

“Exactly,” Brandt says, exhaling with force and gritting his teeth as he inhales. “You have priorities, and you have secrets. And you want trust.

“My wife almost died because of what I do. Not just once, but multiple times. She couldn’t live her life in isolation. It wasn’t what she wanted. I owed her more than that. It was a question of life or death. So I gave her life,” Ethan explains with unexpected candor. He’s still looking at Brandt with that same knowing gaze, and as much as Brandt wants to, he can’t look away. “I hadn’t anticipated the fallout. Of everyone in my life, do you know how many know the truth about her?”

Brandt’s still so surprised by the story that he doesn’t muster up an answer.

“None,” Ethan says flatly. “I haven’t told any of them. Except you.”

The revelation is obvious.

It’s also dumbfounding. Brandt’s been so wrapped up in what it means for him that he’d forgotten about the other side of it. He’d forgotten that the only casualty in all this wasn’t just his career -- it was Ethan’s marriage, too. He’d saved his wife, and sacrificed their relationship. He could never be with her again.

She was his secret. His most treasured possession that he could never touch. He could never even share.

“I haven’t told my closest friends, and I told you,” Ethan continues. “A man I hardly know -- with the most important secret of my life.”

The words resonate, and Brandt inhales as deep as he can before he asks, “Why?”

Ethan shrugs. “I told you,” he says. “I tell people what they need to know when they need to know it.”

There’s sense to that, but it doesn’t erase the questions. The doubts. He shakes his head. “So why did you come in after me?”

“You needed an extraction,” Ethan replies.

“The mission was complete,” Brandt argues. “I made a choice--”

“And so did I,” Ethan says. “After everything. After all that we went through -- I know this isn’t just about the mission anymore. The mission isn’t worth the people. It’s taken me a long time to figure that out, but I think I understand it now.”

“That’s what I don’t get,” Brandt says, pausing to cough. “This team -- it’s better as a three-man thing.”

“How do you figure?”

Brandt feels vexed. “Benji handles the tech; Jane can work a cover, and you’re the man in charge,” he says. At this point, he has to say it. He has to admit it. He has nothing left to lose. “I’m redundant.”

Ethan looks at him for a moment.

“I mean, in the field, I’m just taking your spot,” Brandt continues. “I’m just--”

He stops short, when he realizes what he said.

His eyes narrow at Ethan, then widen. “I’m taking your place.”

This time, Ethan inclines his head knowingly.

Brandt finds himself gaping. And he can’t stop. “You recruited me to take your place,” he says again, trying to believe it.

“Eventually,” Ethan concedes. He shrugs. “I’m not so vain as to believe in my own immortality. No one can do this job forever. I don’t even want to.”

“So, what?” Brandt asks, still wrapping his mind around it. “I’m your protege?”

“No,” Ethan says. “You’re just the best man I could find to replace me. You’re good. You’re smart. You care about the right things.”

It’s a compliment. It’s a lot of compliments. It’s the affirmation he’s been needing and been too proud to ask for. It answers all the questions and leaves him with a new, more pressing doubt. “I’m not sure I’m ready,” he admits.

At this, Ethan smiles coyly. “Well that’s probably good,” he says. “Because I’m not sure I’m ready yet either.”

Brandt laughs breathlessly, shaking his head. “So where does that leave us?”

Ethan reclines nonchalantly. “Right where we started,” he says. “A team.”

“A team,” Brandt repeats.

“Which means, next time when I say pull out, you better pull out,” Ethan says. “You cut it too close.”

Finally, it’s Brandt’s turn to smirk. “I don’t want you feeling completely useless in the van,” he says.

Ethan’s face breaks out into a genuine smile. “So you almost got burned alive for my sake?”

Brandt shifts, suppressing a grimace. “Works for me.”

Ethan rolls his eyes. He stands, clapping Brandt on the forearm. “You’re more like me than you know.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Brandt replies.

“I’m sure,” Ethan says. Then he hesitates. “I wasn’t kidding, though. You did cut it too close.”

“You want the truth?” Brandt asks.

“Nah,” Ethan says with a diffident move of his shoulder. “You’ll tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it. And I trust now that you won’t pull a stupid stunt like that again.”

Brandt is grateful -- because Ethan probably already knows the truth. He already knows that Brandt made a judgment call based on doubt and recklessness. He already knows that Brandt was looking for his footing and nearly fell off the cliff entirely.

He knows Brandt should have been burned alive.

Just like Brandt knows Ethan wouldn’t let that happen.

“Of course,” Brandt replies with a growing confidence that feels good. “That’s what teamwork is all about, right?”

Ethan smiles again. “I think you’re starting to get it.”

“Only a few years too late,” Brandt quips.

“Well, better late than never,” Ethan tells him before he leaves.

Brandt can only agree.

Comments

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: August 8th, 2013 06:57 pm (UTC)
Brandt

You can't believe how happy I am that you dabbled in the MI:4 fandom :)

It's great that you show Brandt's reluctance at going back into the field, and the fact that he sees Hunt, Carter and Dunne as a trio with him as an intruder. There are many fics out there that shows everything working smoothly at once, while they are all a good read, I think you're version feels closer to the reality. Change can be a good thing, but the mind as to deal with it first.

(And yes, Renner is sort of amazing)

(Also because it is way too fitting to not mention 'brand' in German means fire :))

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 7th, 2013 03:04 am (UTC)
happy ralph

It was a fun thing to dabble -- Brandt is quite fun to write (and whump). I always thought Brandt should have more angst about the reveal at the end that Ethan's wife is alive, which played well into fic.

Thanks!

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